The Brilliance and Beauty of PNG orchids

Papua New Guinea holds many world records – particularly in relation to its rich bio-diversity and unique fauna and flora. The varieties of orchids especially, have their basis in a rich gene pool that has fascinated botanists, gardeners and hobbyists worldwide. For the last five years the PNG Orchid Society has brought to the fore the remarkable brilliance and beauty of this gene pool in its annual show at the Sir Rabbie Namaliu Garden located within the National Parliament grounds in Port Moresby.

Tiara & Didi decided to play peek 'a' boo behind this Sepik mask covered by the orchids.
This year’s two-day orchid spectacular in July did not cease to amaze. The splash of colours on stems and in pots wowed visitors of all ages. A total of over 5,000 plants were on show and for sale. Orchids from Thailand and Singapore were displayed amongst an array of local splendour and hybrids. The centre-piece was a bed of moss, laden with petite wild natives small enough to fit in a tea-spoon, originating from the PNG highlands.

I have attended the Orchid Show every year and at every show, I am awe-struck by the vibrancy of colours and sizes of orchid petals that change like iridescent sparks in a fireworks display. Of the 30,000 orchid species that exist in the world, 3,200 are found in PNG. The most popular is the epiphytic (grows on trees rather than on the ground) Dendrobium family which has had many artificial varieties bred from it.

For the last three years one person has dominated the PNG Orchid
Show and annual competition as Grand Champion. He is Godfrey Seeto, a Papua New Guinean by birth and a Port Moresby businessman. This year however the First Prize winner was lawyer Steven Kami, also another adopted son of PNG although of Tongan origin.

Godfrey and Steven are as passionate about PNG as they are about PNG orchids. Both were boys when their paths crossed and have been friends ever since. Within the exclusive PNG orchids family they seemed to have carved themselves a niche where they can feel at home.

Godfrey remembers when he first caught sight of an orchid at the age of about 7 in Rabaul. His father Sir Ling Seeto had brought home a hybrid flower from Asia and he had thought “Wow”, but other than religiously watering the plants as an errand for his father, he really did not take much interest in the exotic specimen. It was only recently, infact about 5 years ago, that he put his “heart and soul” into orchids when he and his family moved into a house on Port Moresby’s Touaguba Hill. He now has an envious collection of 8,000 plants mostly of dendrobium section spatulata species and hybrids
(Dendrobium lasianthera, gouldii, lineale, alexandrae , anosmum, mibelianum, mussauense).

In search of the elusive exotic specimen

The foundation for this garden was laid when Godfrey and Steven began driving down the Central province coast to Tubusereia village to buy coconut husks at K5.00 a bag. Then came the trips every weekend to Sogeri mountains and the hinter Owen Stanley foothills in search of rare wild orchids. This turned into trips to far-off Kupiano, Galley Reach, Morobe Province, Lihir Island, New Ireland, Sepik, Bensbach, Daru etc.
During one of these trips outside Port Moresby, they found the rare Dendrobium carronii orchid that had not been seen in the country since documented by famous botanist Andree’ Miller 50 years ago.

The adrenalin from such a find not only sent Steven and Godfrey into a competitive frenzy; Godfrey’s work habits have also changed. Every morning he rises early and after work, he is home early to tend to his orchids. In response to my quizzical look he said; “Orchids are a bit like kids. They are fussy. They have different types of needs and attention. There are some that are of low maintenance and others that need special care.”

Godfrey received his awards at the PNG Orchid Show for the last three years for Dendrobium lasianthera (twice) and dendrobium gouldii species while Steven’s first prize this year was for a dendrobium lineale hybrid which has a subtle mauve bloom and was a hybrid produced by Phil Spence at the National Capital District Botanical Gardens in Port Moresby in the 1990s.

Papua New Guinea has the highest concentration of orchids and has more recorded species than anywhere in the world attracting botanists and other specialists who travel to PNG regularly to study them. The predominantly untouched rainforest terrain, the different climatic conditions varying between the cool highlands and the humid lowlands plus a conducive habitat provide a catalyst for the abundance in orchid species.

Godfrey explained; “Orchid botanists have come here, seen our orchids in their natural environment and have gone back and imitated the PNG environment to grow their orchids, for example the Singapore Gardens”.

“Ninety per cent of the exotic dendrobium hybrids in Malaysia, Singapore and other countries have PNG genes, obtained from our native plants through cross – pollination and breeding,” he said.

To protect the country’s orchid diversity, the Government introduced a total ban on the export of wild orchids in 1990. It is still illegal to remove adult orchid plants from Papua New Guinea.

PNG - the potential hub of the orchid cut-flower industry

Many enthusiasts believe that Papua New Guinea could become the hub of the orchid cut-flower industry, supplying to markets in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and beyond, but such an industry would require support and financial commitment from the PNG Government.

“The PNG Orchid Society is a bunch of amateurs and hobbyists. We need experts to come into the country and show how farming of orchids can be done on large-scale, to produce seedlings; do tissue-culture and propagation so that we can sell orchid flowers to the world;” Godfrey said.

“Don’t get me wrong. This (orchids) is our hobby. We help each other, we challenge each other and we love what we do – we have one passion.”

After witnessing and being part of the spectacular PNG Orchid Show for several years, Godfrey is convinced that the orchid cut-flower industry could easily be a mums-and-dads business producing flowers from simple plants and bringing in income on a regular basis.

“This could be a sustainable business;” he said. “We have all the right genetic material. We have the largest gene pool. What we need are experts to assist us if the government provides the right incentives.”

Godfrey has no doubt about the enormous economic potential of the PNG orchids;
“We have the world at our doorstep and we could compete in the cut-flower industry”.

The annual Orchid Show has certainly brought to light a couple of issues - orchids are a national treasure and their rich gene pool should not be exploited without real benefits filtering to the PNG people. Moreover PNG orchids are a national asset and can be converted into an entreprising cut-flower venture for grassroots Papua New Guineans, many of whom are horticulturalists by nature.


Mari said...

This is a great post. Really enjoyed. Great pic!


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